Joanie Moseley took a bite of her salad, sticking a slice of heart of palm in her mouth. She dabbed her lips with a stiff white napkin, savoring the heart of palm's mild aftertaste. What an utter waste to have served it with arugula, she thought. Arugula could be so bitter.
Taking that first bite of salad was a signal not only to her table but to the rest of the Que Pasa assembly that everyone could eat. Dinner had officially begun. There was nothing more she could do than let the evening happen.
To Joanie's left, Maria eyed her entire salad course suspiciously but perked up at the bread. Past Maria, Sims had placed his gin martini back on the table in order to help his mother drape a pale blue sweater over her shoulders. Even on hot nights she grew cold. Dorthula was supposed to be sitting next to Mrs. Moseley, but she had taken a seat with her daughter, Alexandra Raines, several tables away. It looked to Joanie as if she were staring daggers at the table all night. All Joanie could do was chalk it up to Dorthula's grumpiness. The woman was out of anyone's control.
There was another empty seat at the table, this one even more conspicuous. What was keeping Trigg? Nothing had detained the Mudges. Joe Mudge sat across the table, and something about his expectant calm reminded Joanie of a cat eyeing a plateful of tuna. At his left sat his wife, who rested her right hand upon his left leg. Mrs. Mudge was oblivious to the rest of the table until the salad was placed in front of her.
Joanie's brothers from Memphis, in town for the holidays, had agreed to fill out the table. They poked at the arugula as if they suspected it of hiding the real food. No one had even had a chance to introduce themselves to the Mudges. Joanie was sorting through various strategies for small talk when a woman she did not know tapped her on the shoulder.
"Joanie Moseley?" the woman asked.
Joanie turned her body at the waist to face her. She nodded affirmatively, still chewing. She was certain it was yet one more woman congratulating her on the evening. This would go on all night long.
"I'm Jill Smathers, and I work with your husband on his Darby Glen initiative," the woman said, lowering to Joanie's eye level and placing her hand on the back of her rented party chair. "He wants you to know he's been delayed."
As Smathers spoke, she scanned her environment. What was Joe Mudge doing sitting there, and how in the hell had he landed at the head table? That made the ensuing moments critical. She would need to keep things low, quiet and controlled. With the noise in the banquet hall at a dull roar, no one would be able to overhear her. That was a positive.
"Oh, well, I do hope he makes it," Joanie said. "I can't tell you how many times he's missed dinner at home. He loves working late." Joanie then stifled a laugh, as if what she'd said was funny. Smathers did not laugh.
"Joanie, listen, I'm afraid he isn't going to be available," Smathers said. "When the Stress Free stock collapsed this afternoon, he had a reaction. He's sleeping now and I've called a doctor. I thought it best to tell you in person as soon as I could."
The heart of palm turned to ashes. Joanie stared blankly at Smathers. She turned slowly to face the rest of the table. Its inhabitants had not heard the conversation itself, but Joanie's stricken expression told them they should tune in.
"I'm afraid I don't know..." Joanie said, her thin voice trailing into the crowded air. Her hands fluttered to her face in horror. "What is happening?" she said, unable to stop the dinner guests from watching. "Do you all know any of this? And what is this about the stock? What has happened to Stress Free?"
Worst-case scenario, Smathers thought: public meltdown. Emotions run amok. Time to massage the message before it's too late, before the narrative begins to spill chaotically into the public, giving Mudge the strategic advantage. At this juncture there was still no reality. Everything unfolding was just raw experience, to be shaped by the power of perception into whatever she needed. She could feel the power of the Communicative Cascade rising before her, like the Red Sea facing Moses.
It was time to raise her staff. Standing behind Joanie, who had buried her face in her napkin, Smathers placed a bracing hand on her shoulder and addressed the entire table.
"What I'm here to say, unfortunately, is that Trigg Moseley won't be able to come tonight due to business obligations," Smathers said, in the stoic manner of a pilot reassuring the passengers that, no, those are not actually flames you see leaping from the turbines. "He was very invested in the event's success and he regrets this turn of events."
The dominant sound in the room was the collective clamor of voices in the banquet hall, the clinks of forks hitting plates and ice hitting glasses, and an occasional, stabbing laugh. At the podium on stage in the front of the room, a petite woman with frizzy black hair began to speak. Through the ballroom PA her booming voice was impassioned and impenetrable, an emphatic hum of earnest white noise. But at least she gave those seated at the head table something to pretend to listen to.
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! WE WOULD LIKE TO WELCOME YOU TO THE FIRST ANNUAL FELIZ NAVIDAD GALA BENEFITING OUR OWN FABULOUS ORGANIZATION QUE PASA! WE ARE HERE TO CELEBRATE THE CONFLUENCE OF TWO NASHVILLES! THE NASHVILLE THAT HAS BEEN AND THE NASHVILLE THAT WILL BE! THE MISSION OF QUE PASA IS TO ASSIST IN THIS TRANSFORMATION! WE EXTEND A HAND TO THE THOUSANDS WHO ARE COMING HERE FROM MEXICO! GUATEMALA! NICARAGUA! COSTA RICA! AND THE OTHER GREAT NATIONS SOUTH OF OUR BORDERS! LET US NOW APPLAUD THEM!
A smattering of applause ensued. Maria, sensing that Joanie was not feeling well, handed over her glass of water. Joanie took the glass, gratefully. She took a sip.
"That goddamned black preacher," Mrs. Moseley then shouted out. "He has stirred the waters around my house. I've got half a mind to..."
"Mother," Sims interrupted harshly. "Hush. And hush now."
"I'll hush when I want to. Maybe somebody oughta tell that black preacher to hush."
"This crap happens all the time in Memphis," cackled one of Joanie's brothers from Memphis. "These blacks just wanta talk. Talk, talk, talk. Let 'em talk. Then fuck 'em."
Years ago, as a child in Memphis, Joanie wouldn't have been shocked by such talk. But having lived in Nashville for all of her adult life, such racially charged conversation was just not something you heard in public. Nashville was the land of Que Pasa! "You two outta here, now," Joanie hissed, suddenly turning on them. "I'll have none of this at my table!"
Across the table the two brothers sulked, then talked quietly between themselves. "We're gonna go grab a beer," Joanie's brother announced to the table. "Can we get anybody anything?" The question was met with silence.
Sims and his mother continued to glare at one another. Maria ran her dark hand through Joanie's hair. Across the table, Joe Mudge's wife sat grazing placidly on massive forkfuls of arugula. She cocked her head at an angle and leaned over to Mudge. She whispered, "These people remind me of your family at Christmas."
Mudge looked at her without a worry in the world. "Baby doll," he answered, "I got a feeling we ain't seen nothing yet."
"THE PROGRESS MADE BY QUE PASA IN ASSISTING THE LIVES OF HISPANICS AS THEY TRANSFORM THIS CITY HAS BEEN WELL DOCUMENTED! IN THE 16 MONTHS OF ITS EXISTENCE, QUE PASA HAS ACTED AS A CLEARINGHOUSE FOR HOUSING! HEALTH CARE! AND TRANSPORTATION! FOR OUR HISPANIC COMMUNITY! THIS ORGANIZATION'S GREATNESS IS TESTAMENT TO THE FACT THAT A CITY OF MANY CULTURES CAN STILL BE ONE NEIGHBORHOOD! ONE CITY! ONE PEOPLE!"
People looked up and nodded once in a while to pretend they were paying attention. Even so, the dull roar in the banquet hall seemed only to increase as the black-clad wait staff darted about with bottles of red and white wine in both hands. The sensation was of swelling chaos. For the first time in many years, Smathers was not quite certain what to do. From the corner of her eye, she could see a hand waving in the air, five or six tables away. It was Andy Hobbs.
"Look," Smathers said, trying to get the attention of those still at the table. "I want you all to know that as I monitor Trigg's progress, I'll keep you updated." She knew it was not her best performance. But the Communicative Cascade had been interrupted by family factors that were utterly out of her control. That would absolve her of any blame, she concluded. She walked off towards Hobbs.
"Monitor Trigg's progress?" Sims asked. "What does she mean, 'monitor his progress?' "
"I think Trigg has collapsed or something," Joanie stammered. "The womanwhat's her name?told me he's sleeping. What's thiswhat happened to Stress Free?"
"That goddamn black preacher is what's happened to the company," Mrs. Moseley asserted yet again. "I got a mind to..."
"The stock has collapsed," Sims spoke, more sternly than he intended, interrupting his mother and gripping the edge of the table. "And it's all because of that man right there!" Sims pointed squarely at Mudge. The man in question stirred two packets of sugar into a tall glass of iced tea, unfazed. He took a sip without wavering from Sims' glare.
"That man is trying to bury our company," Sims continued, somewhat unnerved by Mudge's calm. "And that man wants Darby Glen. And he's got the gall to somehow think he can sit here with us, as if nothing whatsoever is going on!"
Mudge sat silently as waiters whisked away the salad plates. The first course had ended, and many people used that as an excuse to stretch their legs and mingle with friends in the hall. At that instant, from another table, as if he had materialized from thin air, appeared Fred Milton.
"Lovely evening, Joanie," Milton said, stooping to kiss her on the cheek. "Congratulations on such a fine affair." If Joanie brightened a bit at Milton's kind words and his calming presence, Mrs. Moseley absolutely beamed.
"Fred, do sit down with us," Mrs. Moseley said. "We appear to have lost a few guests this evening and would love to have you round us out."
Unbuttoning his jacket, Milton sat down. "I guess I can sit for a spell," he said. After a pause, he turned to face Mudge. "Good evening to you, Joe Mudge," Milton said.
"Hello, Fred Milton," Mudge then said. "How's bidness?"
"I ain't complaining," Milton said folksily. He pushed his chair back from the table and stretched his long legs out in front of him. "How's the bank?"
"I ain't complaining either," Mudge said. As if in imitation of Milton, he unbuttoned his double-breasted suit jacket. As he did so, a vast amount of cashmere unfolded from its buttons, like a flag tossed into a breeze. "We had quite a day today, matter of fact, what with the position we have in the Darby Glen development and all," Mudge said. "We were just gettin' around to talkin' about it as a matter of fact."
Mudge pushed his chair back and placed his napkin on the table. As if shooing away a hungry dog, he swept a few crumbs from his pants legs with the palm of his hand. No need to make any bones about Darby Glen, nor to hide his aggression behind some lace doily; that was for these soft, soft people. The swamp of their tribulations was his to sail smoothly. He had spent a lifetime getting to this point. He knew he would not lose.
Milton sensed it too. A man who had spent years in the grease pits fixing flat tires and tuning up engines wouldn't go away easily when he had a $20 million loan on the line. People with new wealth could sometimes be backed down for social reasons. They almost inevitably felt inferior in some way, Milton knew, and you could usually catch them off balance some way to get them to behave.
But for Mudge, he knew, owning Darby Glen was part of a plan. This was Mudge's way to finally leave the grease pit for good, after a lifetime of peeking in the windows of rich people who loved owning farmland they didn't have to farm. Milton could hardly blame Mudge for that, however crude he was. You can't fault a mule for wanting to hold the reins.
"Sims, can you run up there and get me another Maker's and soda?" Milton then asked. "Back's kinda hurting me, and if you could help me I'd be a happy man."
Great, Sims thought. Just because I'm gay, I'm also the waiter. "You bet, Fred," he replied frostily. "I will get your Maker's, and I will probably get one for me too." He knew his tone had conveyed just enough displeasure to make everyone question whether he was upset. For good measure, he threw his napkin on his chair with a little more energy than required.
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! BEFORE WE GET TO THE HEART OF TONIGHT'S PROGRAM, WE WOULD LIKE TO EXPRESS OUR GREAT THANKS! AT HAVING IN OUR PRESENCE TONIGHT! A WONDERFUL CHRISTMASTIME ENTERTAINER! AND A WOMAN WITH A REAL TOUCH FOR THE HISPANIC IN EVERYONE! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! WE PROUDLY BRING YOU TONIGHT! FOR A FEW SONGS! ROUNDUP RECORDS RECORDING ARTIST... CALLI RAWN!
Oh god, Jill Smathers thought, taking her seat next to Andy Hobbs. They had forgotten to rewrite the introduction. When Calli Rawn had cancelled as the event's entertainment, earlier that day, they had sent out a call for a replacement. The person Smathers suggested was a struggling songwriter who hadn't had a hit in six years. He was desperate for work, left with little at this point but his emaciated ego. He would take this oversight as a slap in the face, and he would return it with body blows. Smathers knew this with certainty. He was, after all, her husband.
All noise in the room hushed as a man carrying a banjo stumbled to stage center. He was dressed in the garb of a Hasidic Jew. Mock forelocks draped across his face like bedragged seaweed, and loose black clothes engulfed him from head to toe in a full-body shroud. One hand held a death grip on a trembling quart of beer. As he began to speak, blaring through the PA, his words slurred.
"HO, HO, HO. MERRRRRY CHRISTMAS! MY NAME IS DAVE DUBINSKY, AND I'M GONNA PLAY SOME JEWGRASS. NOT BLUEGRASSJEWGRASS! HEY, IF WE CAN OWN THE NATION'S MEDIA, WE CAN GRAB ITS INDIGENOUS ART FORMS, RIGHT?"
Mercifully, the back of the room had stopped listening. Dubinsky strummed a chord and adjusted his tuning, taking a swig from a bottle.
"SO...JESUS WAS SPEAKING TO THE MASSES, AND THIS LADY FROM THE NEIGHBORHOOD RUSHES UP TO HIS MOTHER. 'YOU MUST BE PROUD TO HAVE SUCH A SON AS THIS,' THE WOMAN SAYS. MOTHER MARY RESPONDS, 'EH, WE WANTED HE SHOULD HAVE BEEN A DOCTOR.'"
Dubinsky started to plunk his banjo with unhinged ferocity. Hobbs grabbed Smathers by the arm. "Joanie, he's shit-faced again," Hobbs said. "He's gonna make an ass out of himself." The two maneuvered towards the stage.
The performance bewildered those people still watching, but it made even less sense to Joanie Moseley. "Oh, my," Joanie said to the table. "I think I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. If you'll excuse me, I think I need a little air." As Maria followed her, Milton stood to watch her leave. Mrs. Moseley stood to say that she too should help Joanie, when in fact she really intended to go check her makeup. Mudge and his wife kept their seats.
Milton turned his chair slightly towards Mudge. "Say, Joe, you ever heard of Alexandra Raines?"
"Well, Fred, I can't say I know the lady," Mudge said. The waiters were now bringing dinner. On each plate sat a filet mignon topped by a large stalk of rosemary and covered in a mushroom sauce. A vegetable medley of petite carrots and asparagus spears rimmed a hefty pool of mashed potatoes.
"Damn fine attorney, Joe. Bright as the dickens. Went up north to college. And she's trying to figure out exactly what you got cooking with Darby Glen. You don't mind if I bring her over here, do you?"
Mudge smiled broadly, his wolf smile revealing a piece of yellowed arugula wedged between his two front teeth. "You know I'd love to meet the lady, Fred."
All around the banquet hall ricocheted the sound of electrified banjo. The music coming from the stage was scary and giddy, the sound of a carousel slipping its gears and spinning beyond control. Mudge's wife saw a woman and man offstage inching toward the banjo player, and she couldn't figure out why the woman looked sad when the music was so lively. She poked her husband in the ribs. Cupping her hands over her mouth so no one could hear, she said to Mudge, "Of course this guy's no Earl Scruggs, but he sort of rocks. We should get him over to the church sometime, don't ya think?"
"On Israel Day," Mudge murmured, as the banjo grew louder and faster. "On Israel Day."
COPYRIGHT 2004 BY BRUCE DOBIE.